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5 tips for international shipping

Photo of an official stamp on a paper document that reads "Primary Customs Cleared."

When your business crosses borders, there are plenty of complexities to deal with—from different languages and currencies to diverse cultural norms. Even the process of shipping internationally can seem like a foreign experience.

But the main difference between shipping domestically and moving your goods globally is not cultural or even currency but customs—clearing your goods for entry into the country of import.

1. Complete the correct customs paperwork

If there is one common theme in conducting trade across borders, it’s paperwork. Knowing the right documents to complete is the first step to keeping your shipments moving through customs in any country.

One document you will need when shipping from or into the United States is the commercial invoice. It contains key information about the sale for exportation, shipper, the receiver, the value on which to pay duties and fees and the items being shipped. In certain cases, you may also need to provide other supporting documentation, such as a Certificate of Origin.  And, when you export a shipment from the United States, you may need to file information known as  Electronic Export Information (EEI). See UPS’s guide on completing the commercial invoice for guidance on this required document for international trade.

To help you with your international shipping needs, choose an international shipping company who can help you better understand how to complete the right forms. In certain cases, required forms can be completed and submitted online using a paperless process. This may help you save time and possibly reduce the chance of manual errors.

2. Fill out your customs paperwork accurately

One reason a shipment may be delayed in customs is an inaccurate or an incomplete description of goods on the commercial invoice or other documents like a Certificate of Origin. That's why it is vital to provide complete and correct information.

Greg Maddaleni, global marketing manager at UPS Customs Brokerage Services, recommends you ask these questions about your international shipment to help provide an accurate description to customs:

  • What is it?
  • What is it used for?
  • What is it made of?
  • Where was it made?
  • What is the correct tariff classification?
  • How much do you have (quantity)?
  • What is the purchase price of the good (or, if not sold, what is the intrinsic value of the good which should, at a minimum, account for the cost of the materials that it took to produce the good)?

Also, include the Harmonized System (HS) codes, for the goods you're shipping. These codes are the standard international reference for classifying products for duty and clearance. Items are grouped into broad categories and refined into more narrow groups.

Countries around the world have adopted the HS Commodity System, customizing the codes for their domestic markets. In the United States, the system is called the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States. Getting the HS code right can be extremely important in minimizing the risk of custom delays, says Maddaleni. “Customs may scrutinize your description or tariff codes, and a customs agent could question either or both of them, which could lead to delays and other problems in current or future shipments," he warns.

3. Know your import country's customs laws

Every government has its own set of laws and rules you'll need to follow. Many countries have specific weight and size limits, depending on the shipment mode you use, and exceeding them is another reason a shipment may get delayed or rejected.

Shipments to some countries will require specific documentation, particularly if you’re making certain claims such as a duty free claim. You may also have to provide special documentation and fees to partnering government agencies, such as the country's equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, depending on what you're shipping.

It's good to be aware of the holidays and business days the country of import observes, as this may affect when shipments are delivered. For the best way to ship internationally, choose a company with a range of shipping options and deep experience in the country you're shipping into.

4. Calculate the landed cost in advance

Whether you're shipping to Berlin or Bangalore, you never want to be surprised by extra costs or hidden fees. Begin by estimating the landed cost, the total international shipping cost including transportation charges, duties, and taxes. Calculation of duties and taxes, including any value added tax (VAT), will be based on the value of your goods.

It is important to exercise due diligence when completing the required documents for international trade, which includes giving an accurate value of the shipped goods on your commercial invoice, because if customs officials think it’s incorrect, it could cause problems for you now or later. "In many categories, the taxes could be very modest,” Maddaleni explains. “To provide anything but the correct sales price or, if not sold, other value accepted by customs laws could put a customer unnecessarily at risk with local customs."

For most international shipments, the costs may end up getting divided between shipper and receiver. For example, it is customary practice that the shipper usually pays shipping charges while the receiver pays duties and taxes, although it could be different in e-commerce transactions where the shipper often carries all the costs. The terms of the agreement are normally recorded in the shipping documentation using the internationally recognized system of Incoterms®.

When calculating the costs associated with the exported good, the exporter should also consider what the foreign country’s de minimis value is. If the minimum value of your qualifying goods falls below this level and meets any other relevant de minimis requirements, no duties and sometimes no taxes are collected.

5. Get expert guidance on international shipping

Even when your business is armed with these insights on international shipping, issues with customs clearance are sure to come up. Thankfully, there are great resources you can turn to with your worldwide shipping questions.

The U.S. Commercial Service can help you at all stages of the shipping process. The agency publishes A Basic Guide to Exporting, which contains a wealth of information about shipping overseas and how to navigate import/export requirements.

Reach out to the border agencies for the countries you're shipping to or visit their websites. The Canada Border Services Agency, for example, has a section on its site devoted to imports and exports.

And, of course, choose a shipping provider experienced in international shipping and customs brokerage —one that can help you confidently navigate the process and answer questions.

"UPS's international network helps give customers the reliability, expertise, and global infrastructure they are looking for from their export carrier," says Maddaleni.

Ready to start going global? 

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To learn more about global shipping solutions and the things you'll need to consider when shipping internationally, visit ups.com/international.

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